Ram Bahadur Rai, former ABVP general secretary and chairman of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts on his passion for a new Constitution
Photograph by Sanjay Rawat
Interview by Pragya Singh, Outlook India | Magazine Issue: June 13, 2016
Veteran journalist Ram Bahadur Rai, former ABVP general secretary, was appointed chairman of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts in April. Questions were raised about his contribution to the arts and his RSS connection. In one of his first interviews, Rai talks about his passion for a new Constitution—a demand that has reared its head in previous NDA dispensations. Excerpts from a conversation with Pragya Singh.
You said at a recent function organised by RSS ideologue Govindacharya that the 16th Lok Sabha should be made into a constituent assembly. Why?
Despite Gandhiji talking of gram swaraj in the independence movement, even today, the centre of governance remains Delhi. Panchayati raj and the decentralisation of urban governance has been on since the ’70s but neither panchayats nor corporations have substantial rights. Also, the Directive Principles of state policy impose a moral obligation on how we are to be governed. Right now, they are like some sant’s updesh. The biggest improvement would be to include them in the body of the Constitution, convert them into basic rights. Everything good for society is in the Directive Principles, they should make them justiciable.
How is the Constitution letting us down?
The Constitution does not encourage federalism. Since the 1950s, it has slowly converted itself into a prime ministerial form of government. Even the cabinet system gives ministers autonomy, but I don’t think ministers have enjoyed autonomy beyond what a PM allows. There have been over 100 constitutional amendments; one every year, and we still cannot say there won’t be need for more. This in itself is proof the Constitution does not fulfil today’s needs.
Would you attribute the conflict between the executive and judiciary over judges to flaws in the Constitution?
The Constitution retained 85 per cent of the Government of India Act, 1935. This Act was a culmination of the British efforts to establish control. The judicial system the British set up is still functioning, while the political set-up has weakened. What we have seen since the ’90s is not ‘judicial activism’, but, as Jaitley says, politicians stand limited to imposing taxes, all else is done by courts. Decades after Kesavananda Bharati, the judiciary never even defined the basic features for the Constitution.
The basic structure has been defined through many, not one judgement.
From 1973 to 2008 there are different rulings—but they are interpreted to arrive at conclusions about basic features. Subhash Kashyap has determined five or six, based on these rulings. But these are his conclusions—the SC has never said what they are. A constitution without basic features—god alone knows what such a constitution is.
Why then is there talk of a new Constitution only by parties in power?
“The Constitution does not encourage federalism. Since the ’50s, it has converted itself into a prime ministerial form of government.”
Neither BJP nor Congress talked about changing the Constitution. Yes, Indira Gandhi did set up the Swaran Singh committee, but even that was during the Emergency. Take, for instance, Narendra Modi. He took the position that in this Constitution, there is no need for change. The underlying sentiment is that should the need arise, they will make one or two changes and their work will be done! I say, no! This Constitution needs to be reconsidered afresh.
Why would things turn out differently?
There has not been any people’s movement around the Constitution, but for the last 20-25 years, this issue has been raised consistently. And it is now taking the shape of a popular demand.
Still, why is it so important now?
Socialists boycotted the Constituent Assembly. Jawaharlal Nehru kept the Communists out. Some 55 per cent of people in it were from a Congress background. The Muslim League left the Assembly after June 4, 1947. Their seats were also occupied by Congressmen. It finally had 85 per cent members from the Congress—our first objection is this. Reading the CA’s proceedings, people may feel it did a lot of work, but conditions in India were such that the leadership had no time for reflection. Another kind of Mahabharata was being fought in which Nehru or Sardar Patel or anyone in the CA had no chance to make a constitution for India’s future.
But wasn’t the Congress the dominant political force back then?
The Constituent Assembly was a creation of the British. Though formed on December 9, 1946, the decision was taken in London. Gandhiji, on December 3, 1946, wrote to Sardar Patel through Ghanshyamdas Birla, arguing that the Assembly was against Congress resolutions, that it was not the Assembly that had been asked for and that it was, in fact, a part of the British plan.
As the imperial power, wasn’t British intervention only to be expected?
Even before the Constituent Assembly was formed, Lord Mountbatten had decided who would make the Constitution. Nehru’s contemporary from Cambridge, B.N. Rau, was brought in. A bureaucrat with nature like water—which takes the shape of whatever vessel he was poured into—Rau became the instrument to create a constitutional regime of the kind the British had imagined for India. Many allege that our Constitution picked up details from Australia, US, Canada and elsewhere. This was all B.N. Rau’s doing. People say B.R. Ambedkar was the drafting committee chairman and that there were seven others in it. But consider their attendance at its meetings—all members were roaming around in their constituencies, not working on the draft. They knew that once the Constitution is ready, there would be elections.
So are you questioning Dr Ambedkar’s role in framing the Constitution?
“There is a single party majority and all parties are in Parliament. This is the right time to convert the Lok Sabha into a constituent assembly.”
B.R. Ambedkar’s role was limited, so that whatever material B.N. Rau gave him, he would correct its language. It was like RAW or IB, where footsoldiers write reports in broken English and IPS officers turn it into good English, capable of being presented to the PM. So, Ambedkar did not write the Constitution. In fact, he said, if the Constitution is ever to be set afire, then ‘I will be the first to do so’. He said this in anger, reacting to being mocked for amending a constitution he himself wrote, during the RS debate on creation of Andhra Pradesh. But he also said it when he was calm.
Is his role then a myth?
Yes, myth hai, myth hai, myth hai. It is a part of identity politics.
You also say the Preamble is an issue.
From August 15, 1947, the Constituent Assembly took on a sovereign character. Yet, it represented only 12 per cent of the people, for only that many had the right to vote prior to independence. The Preamble was not even discussed in the Assembly. Even when Nehru put forward the objectives resolution, the Preamble was not so much as mentioned. Nehru brought in British jurist Austin to work on the Constitution. We don’t need Austin’s certification for our Constitution. He may call the Preamble the Constitution’s crown, but I disagree—it was added later, like a cart placed before a horse. Whatever is in the Preamble is open for a new constituent assembly to do as it pleases.
Do you have other objections?
This Constitution is a haven for lawyers—lawyers wrote it, the kind with no connection to India’s nature or culture. This does not mean that they were not desh bhakts, or learned or that they did not want a good constitution. But they were trapped in circumstances, which is why the Constitution they came up with became, broadly, a new testament of our gulaami (slavery).
But even previous BJP government made attempts to change it.
Vajpayee set up a review commission and if it had been given full freedom they would have done their work. But I know that the chairman of the commission, Justice Venkatachalaiah, was called by Vajpayee and told, aap zyaada sameeksha mat kariye—don’t review too much. I know, because when Justice Venkatachaliah was asked to chair this commission, I met him. Even that report is with the government. Then, there’s Moily’s Administrative Reforms Commissions report. I’m saying, this process is endless and meaningless.
You say secular people don’t want the Constitution to be changed.
In our country, some myths have been created, although they are breaking slowly, and one is that the Constitution is like a temple idol nobody can touch. Some people feel, if the Constitution is tampered with, what will happen to the dreams of Babasaheb Ambedkar. But people to represent Babasaheb’s dreams are in this Parliament, so this danger does not exist. I told JP too, that this establishment is based on the Constitution, why don’t you talk of changing it? Some say this Lok Sabha has thieves and criminals—that’s no argument. Elected representatives have every aid at their disposal to debate what is being said at a people’s forum and a constituent assembly is the right forum for them to debate it.